Wednesday, November 11, 2015

air india [REDACTED] at SFU Woodward's

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the worst act of terror in Canadian history, the bombing of Air India Flight 182, which exploded off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 persons on board. The criminal trial, one of the longest in Canadian history, resulted in the acquittal of the accused. A subsequent inquiry revealed, among other things, that the RCMP knew about the planned attack--and yet did nothing to prevent it. A national public trauma whose legacy of grief has yet to be fully processed or exorcised, this "act of historical violence" exists, in the words of poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar, "more on the margins of collective consciousness than at the centre of [Canada's] imagination."

Thank goodness, then, for artists, whose task it is to poke at our amnesiac cocooning. Saklikar's book of poems, Children of Air India: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (2013), serves as the basis for a remarkable new chamber opera commissioned by Vancouver's Turning Point Ensemble, which is currently receiving its world premiere at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. The last performance is tonight, on Remembrance Day, and it is not to be missed. Wedding Saklikar's words to composer Jürgen Simpson's richly layered and haunting score, this Irish-Canadian co-production strips opera down to the essential relationship between music and voice, substituting spareness for spectacle, and editing out all traces of sentimentality.

To this end, director Tom Creed has his three singers--soprano Zorana Sadiq, countertenor Daniel Cabena, and baritone Alexander Dobson--deliver their respective arias while seated at a long table. Channeling, via Saklikar's poetry, the voices of friends and family of the victims, investigating officers and court reporters, the trio does not parse out for us any harmonically resolvable explanation of narrative events. Rather, in dissonant counterpoint and textured tonal engagement, they stretch out for us "one unending song" of grief. Above the singers John Galvin's remarkable video projections unspool as an inky overlay of fathomless ocean waters, blacked-out evidentiary documents, and the scrambled lines of voicebox data recorders, the search for meaning in all of this--about sanctioned state violence, or a life ended prematurely--necessarily redacted.

This principle of obscured or selective remembering is also captured acoustically within the score. Behind the singers air india musical director and TPE artistic director Owen Underhill works with his remarkable group of musicians to find and hold the silences between Simpson's notes (the plucked minor keys of Kinza Tyrell's piano standing out early in the program), and also--at key moments--to interpolate pre-recorded bits of white noise. These moments are jarring, but also completely appropriate, jolting us out of passive spectatorship and into active witnessing. For in trying to represent sonically all that is contained within the story of Air India 182, I can think of no better metaphor than playing at equal intensity every frequency within the spectrum of human hearing.


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